For six seniors — Lauren Halsey, Corrina Castillo, Sedona Silvera, Ana Kastrati, Marrina Jacka and Holiday Bovio — the weight of this production was not lost on them as they settled into the most demanding roles of their dance careers. All the while, the first of their college acceptance or rejection letters flooded in.
Even still, the girls watched the next generation of ballerinas twirl around them in parts they once danced themselves, wistfully reminiscing and reflecting on the annual winter show. And amid the stress, they found moments of levity and joy, sharing laughs and knowing smiles as they readied to dance their final “Nutcracker” — together.
“It’s really the end of an era,” Lauren said. “I’ve been with the same group of girls since I was 3 years old and we all come from different schools and all want to do different things in our lives — and it’s so exciting to finally get to perform with them, one last time.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, HBTS canceled last year’s “Nutcracker” ballet, which will kick off its 12th annual production on Friday night at Stony Brook Southampton’s Avram Theater.
“I just feel so much older this year, because we missed a year,” Sedona said. “It’s a different feeling to be like, ‘This is it.’ In the past, it’s always been like, you dream about what you’ll be next year and this is it. But the energy and excitement is still there.”
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” is a pillar for the ballet school, explained director Sara Jo Strickland. Not only do the dancers grow up and into more advanced roles every year, they learn fundamental life skills, like time management and discipline, through the production.
Typically, two to three seniors age out of the ballet each season, she reported — making this year not only unusual, but particularly meaningful.
“They’re like my children, almost. It will be a really emotional ‘Nutcracker’ because it’s six of them and these girls I’ve known for so long — and their moms and their dads,” Strickland said. “Those moms, particularly, they’ve been doing shows with me as long as their daughters have been dancing, so almost 18 years. The girls grow up learning the dance, but the moms grow up learning how to run the shows. It’s gonna be bittersweet.”
The beloved ballet tells the story of Clara, whose godfather, Herr Drosselmeyer, gives her a wooden nutcracker at a family party on Christmas Eve that her brother, Fritz, swiftly breaks. Corrina has danced both Fritz and Clara — “Literally the highlight of my life,” she said — as has Lauren, who will also play the godfather for one night this year.
“That could be fun,” she said with a laugh. “I was just informed of it yesterday. I know there’s a bald cap involved, so I’m pretty excited about that.”
After everyone has gone to bed, Clara sneaks out of her room to check on the nutcracker. As she approaches, the clock strikes midnight, mice fill the room and she is suddenly caught in a battle between an army of gingerbread soldiers, led by her now life-sized Nutcracker, and the rodents, led by the Mouse King — who ultimately meets his doom.
The first year she danced in the nutcracker, Corrina embodied the “doctor mouse,” who is in charge of inspecting the fallen Mouse King.
“One of the mice is chosen, when the Mouse King dies, to pick up the hand and throw it down and put their hands up and be like, ‘Dead!’” she explained. “But I actually said, ‘Dead!’ in the middle of the show when I was 3, and Miss Sara thought it was the funniest thing ever. It’s such a core memory to me. I’m the only person who’s ever done that in all these years.”
After the mice retreat, the Nutcracker transforms into a prince, who leads Clara to a pine forest where snowflakes dance around him. Then, the Snow Queen — this year shared by Lauren and Corrina — takes center stage, partnered by guest artist Joseph Tudor.
“There are so many moving parts and it’s such a quintessential part of the Nutcracker,” Lauren said. “I’m very excited to be in it this year.”
Clara and the Prince then travel to the Land of Sweets, which the Sugar Plum Fairy had ruled until his return. He recounts how Clara saved his life and she throws a celebration in her honor, featuring dances by sweets from around the world, including chocolate from Spain, candy canes from Russia, and coffee from Arabia, led by the Arabian Princess — this year shared by Marrina and Lua Li, with Tudor partnering.
Ana will share the role of Dew Drop Princess, the lead during the Waltz of the Flowers, with Sadie Radice, followed by the final dance of the evening by the Sugar Plum Fairy — portrayed by Sedona and Holiday — with her partner, the Cavalier, danced by guest artist James Monroe Števko.
“Nothing I’ve ever done is anything like the level of work I’ve put into Sugar Plum, but they’ve all definitely worked up to it,” Sedona said. “It’s a bit crazy to be here, because I’ve seen so many people graduate, people that I’ve looked up to. It’s just so weird because I feel like that’s me now.
“Looking back, I’m in awe that I have been doing this for so long, it’s been such a big part of my life,” she continued. “I’m excited to move forward, but this is like my family.”
Lauren, Corrina and Sedona all imagine that their college studies will steer them away from pursuing dance professionally — they aim to study neuroscience, communications and media, and human rights or political science, respectively — but none plan to say goodbye altogether.
“There’s always something new to learn in dance — a new skill, a new turn. It’s ever-evolving,” Lauren said. “That’s why I’m interested in the medical field. I think there is a connection between the two in that they’re both so rigid in how you’re taught them, but they’re ever-changing and ever-evolving, and will never be constant. That’s why I love both of those things.”
Strickland is already anticipating the seismic shift on the horizon for her ballet school, and expects that she will need to hire professional ballerinas in the coming years for the more demanding solos.
“This is a big year,” Strickland said. “For me, it’s like in basketball: you lose six seniors and you’ve gotta rebuild. For next year, I’m already looking at the next level coming up and pushing them — and they’re rising to the challenge. But this is tough, these are girls who are really good dancers.”
Rehearsals and technical week for the “Nutcracker” come with a certain energy, Sedona said. She doesn’t feel it in class, or any other production, she explained — and she knows her fellow dancers feel it, too.
Lauren sees it in between the stressful moments — a look and a smile after they finish a dance and it goes perfectly, “which happens sometimes, thank goodness,” she said, breaking the tension in the studio.
It connects them, she said, a bond forged through friendship and dance that will never fade, even as distance and time are poised to separate them.
“I’ll be in rehearsal, especially with the little kids, and I’ll be like, ‘This is it. This is the end. This is the last Nutcracker I’ll probably ever do,’” Corrina said. “But at the same time, it’s also like, ‘At least I get this, I’m able to perform and do this for the last time.’ I’m going to leave everything out there.”
Hampton Ballet Theatre School will kick off its 12th annual production of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” on Friday, December 17, at 7 p.m. at the Avram Theater at Stony Brook Southampton. Additional performances will be held on Saturday, December 18, at 1 and 7 p.m., and Sunday, December 19, at 2 p.m. Advance tickets range from $25 to $45, or $30 to $50 day of performance. All attendees must either show a vaccination card or a negative test, and wear a mask during the performance. For tickets and more information, call 888-933-4287 or visit hamptonballettheatreschool.com.